When Gov. Chris Christie signed the 911 Good Samaritan bill, it signaled many things. No longer would bystanders be prosecuted for seeking help for an overdose victim. Drug addicts have a better shot at life. Maybe one less person will die alone and scared.
All of these things ran through Blackwood’s Patty DiRenzo’s mind as she watched Christie turn the legislation she championed for years into law. But primarily, her mind was on her son, Sal.
Sal, the guy who everyone loved. The guy who never had a nasty word for anyone. Once you were Sal’s friend, he was your lifelong defender.
Sal, the 26-year-old who died from an accidental heroin overdose in exactly the circumstances the Good Samaritan law seeks to avoid.
“It was almost like validation for me that Sal’s death was not in vain,” DiRenzo says of the new law. “With determination and persistence, we got it done. Lives are going to be saved.”
New Jersey is now with a 911 Good Samaritan law, which provides limited legal protection for people who call 911 when someone overdoses. If they make the call, individuals won’t be arrested or prosecuted for minor drug possession charges or face revocation of parole and probation.
The law comes as drug overdose deaths continue to climb nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked overdose deaths rising for an 11th year through 2010, the most recent data available. In 2010, 38,329 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose.
Salvatore Marchese was one of them.
'I needed to understand why'
“What if” has confronted DiRenzo time and again since Sal's death on Sept. 23, 2010. What if the person with whom he was using heroin with had reached out for help? What if that person, if not swayed by a moral imperative to call 911, at least knew he wouldn’t be prosecuted? What if Sal could have been saved?
“Kids are being left on the side of the road, they’re being dumped in lots like Sal was, because the kids using with them are afraid of arrest,” DiRenzo says. “They don’t want to go to jail, so they leave these kids.”
It’s understandable to drown in the crushing grief that presses around you when you’ve lost a child, especially with the many questions surrounding Sal’s death. DiRenzo knew she couldn’t live that way.
“Because of the way he died, I needed answers. I needed to understand why—I just needed to do something,” DiRenzo remembers.
So she started making calls, without much of a goal in mind. She wanted to learn about recovery facilities and policies on state aid and why addicts were turned away from rehab programs.
Eventually DiRenzo came across the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that promotes “drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.” She quickly learned about the 911 Good Samaritan law and began a concerted effort to see it passed in New Jersey.
The two years between that call and the May 2 bill signing in Trenton were marked with incremental progress and disappointing setbacks. DiRenzo and Drug Policy Alliance representatives blanketed New Jersey seeking support for the bill. Many towns—including Gloucester Township, Voorhees, Princeton, Camden, Maple Shade and more—passed resolutions in support of the bill.
Step by step, DiRenzo’s work in Sal’s memory was on the cusp of paying off. The state Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill with bipartisan support and all it needed was Christie’s signature.
“What I'm not willing to do is to give people who commit harms on other people a free pass just because they picked up a telephone and called,” Christie told a town hall audience in October 2012.
Finding a community and renewed focus
Christie’s veto shocked DiRenzo, who hadn’t expected it.
“This bill had nothing to do with giving a free pass to drug dealers,” DiRenzo says. “I don’t want a drug dealer not to go to jail. I know in my heart, kids are using drugs together. They’re not using with the drug dealer.”
DiRenzo had to dig deep, asking towns to support resolutions calling for a Legislature override. She leaned on her support network from Drug Policy Alliance and the online community that sprung up in support of the Good Samaritan bill. She especially drew resolve from her family, who threw their efforts behind passing the law, too.
Drug addiction can be lonely for the family. It’s still surrounded by a measure of shame and secrecy. The grief of losing someone is compounded by isolation that stems from addiction. DiRenzo and the many supporters of the 911 Good Samaritan law formed a community that embraced the anger, sadness and confusion about addressing a loved one’s addiction. There, those who died were more than their addiction.
“It’s why I fight so hard,” DiRenzo says. “Addiction doesn’t look like what you think it does. I’m seeing that now—the connection to families on Facebook shows me this touches all walks of life. I needed to fight to lift that stigma.”
Bittersweet victory, work left to do
Just as suddenly as the veto came the news: Christie and the Legislature reached a deal in April. The compromise left the meat of the bill intact, but clarified that drug traffickers are not protected by the measure. It also combined with separate legislation to increase access to naloxone, which counters opiate overdoses.
Christie then agreed to sign the Good Samaritan law.
DiRenzo traveled to Trenton for the May 2 bill signing. She met with Christie, whom she called gracious, and spoke at a press conference after the signing.
The big news of the day centered on an appearance by rocker Jon Bon Jovi at the signing—and seeing him was great, DiRenzo says. But her focus stayed on Sal.
“I was floating on air,” DiRenzo says. “It was probably the most”—her voice catches—“It was first time truly smiled or felt good since Sal’s passing.”
The Good Samaritan bill is law now, but DiRenzo’s work isn't finished. She’s on a mission to educate every person she can about the measure. From handing out fliers in Camden to addressing school assemblies and patients in rehab, DiRenzo will push and push until everyone knows about the Good Samaritan law.
“This whole mission was for Sal and his memory, but also be sure other parents don’t have to endure this pain,” DiRenzo says. “Call 911 if someone is overdosing. Save a life.”
To learn more about the Good Samaritan law or to connect with other families dealing with addiction, visit the NJ 911 Good Samaritan Bill group on Facebook.